Thank God for Tod Handley. I vividly recall a year or two back, feeling particularly jaundiced after a succession of glitzy, superficial concerts by conductors far starrier and younger, having my faith in real music making restored by a Handley concert which included a scintillating Schubert Little C Major and a profoundly moving VW Sea Symphony.
That work, of course, is the springboard for this cycle of complete VW symphonies. And a very satisfying journey through this inspiring canon of nine it is, too. Handley's affinity with English music needs no reiterating, but his relationship with Vaughan Williams in particular is a special one. More than most, he is alive to the changing and developing nature of the different symphonies through Vaughan Williams life - from the rich Romantic panoply of the 1st, taking in the influence of study with Ravel in the 3rd, the violence of Nos.4 & 6 and the idealisation of his Pilgrim music as well as that of his beloved Tudor composers in the Fifth, right through to the exploration of new sonorities and form in 7, 8 and 9. Throughout the cycle, this is music making that is honest, perceptive, communicative and frequently illuminating and inspiring.
Handley's Sea Symphony has terrific sweep in the opening movement, ideal rhythmic crispness in the scherzo and real depth in the long, questing Finale. Its one drawback is perhaps the somewhat cramped acoustics of Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall compared to, say, the fuller sound of the Kingsway Hall in Boult's second recording. His London Symphony is as fine as any, though I do now miss the passages opened out in Hickox's recording of the Original Version.
I'm inclined to think this the best Pastoral of any on disc: it finds Handley very sensitive to all the overtones of VW's experiences of the Great War that lie behind its overt pastoralism - Flanders Fields as much as English ones. This is followed by a stunning Fourth, matched only by the composer's own performance. The grinding dissonances of its motto motif, the bounce of the jazzier rhythms, the dark Beethovenian transition to the Finale are all perfectly realised: "I don't know if I like it, but it's what I meant" in VW's famous phrase and I feel sure Handley's performance is just what he meant.
The Fifth finds fierce competition from Boult (twice), Barbirolli (twice) and Haitink (most purely symphonic of all). But Handley strikes a fine balance between the Pilgrim's Progress antecedents of much of the material and the `absolute music' arguments to which it is subjected. This disc is almost worth it for the glorious horn counterpoint at the climax of the first movement alone, picked out by Handley as by no other conductor in my experience. His Sixth is another blistering reading to set beside that of his mentor, Boult, in mono for Decca. Handley's pp final movement here is too mystical to be mistaken for the post-nuclear landscape it's often compared to - it seems closer to VW's great friend, Holst's, Neptune. Pacing and colour are the strengths of this Antarctica, but only Haitink really succeeds in making it sound truly symphonic. And No.8 was always the domain of its dedicatee, `Glorious John' Barbirolli, who seemed to have the secret of its somewhat obtuse Variations without a Theme opening movement, its Bartokian Strings only and Wind only inner movements and the clangour of its Finale with `all the phones and spiels know to the composer'. However the elusive 9th is one of the best of Handley's set. He really seems to understand its deep, dark, Hardyesque mysteries, grounded as those novels seem to be in the very earth and land of England, as well as its further explorations of intriguing sonorities with the use of flugelhorn and saxophones.
The fill-ups from the original discs are here as well, including a fine Job and a superb Flos campi, another elusive work that seems to speak of secrets that are not to be found in the VW biographies. These are all considerable performances that reflect Handley's long-standing empathy with and authority in this music. And all at a bargain price.